Fantastical world unfolds in new exhibit at Norman Rockwell Museum

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AMHERST — Acclaimed children's book author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi is about to have his first major career retrospective at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, but reminiscing is nothing new for the artist; it's an essential part of his creative process.

"I have to return to that age," the 48-year-old artist said of thinking like his child protagonists on a recent Friday morning in his Amherst home's basement studio.

It also helps that he and his wife, Angela (a children's book author herself), have their 10-year-old daughter, Sophia, around to stir their memories.

"`Oh, man, I forgot about that!'" Tony often thinks when observing what's important to Sophia at this stage in her life.

But DiTerlizzi isn't one to forget much, and these recollections help him build worlds in which goblins, fairies, dragons and other creatures can exist in the minds of children — and adults — around the world. In "Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi," the Rockwell will display more than 200 original paintings and drawings by DiTerlizzi from different parts of his career and childhood. The exhibition, which opens Saturday and runs through May 28, will include homages to work on books, such as best-sellers "The Spiderwick Chronicles" and "The Spider and the Fly," as well as DiTerlizzi's tabletop game illustrations from the earlier part of his career.

Paintings and illustrations won't be the only works on view, though. For example, a scaly-armed goblin prop from the film version of "The Spiderwick Chronicles" will make an appearance, its look initially derived from DiTerlizzi mashing together memories of anglerfish and frogs from his Florida youth.

The goblin's prior home was DiTerlizzi's basement, a space that hints at the artist's achievements on a more enduring basis than the museum. From a large, carefully organized bookshelf along the back wall, DiTerlizzi can pull, for instance, an original "Dungeons & Dragons" book that he used to copy illustrations from as a "tween." The artist began working on Dungeons & Dragons professionally in the early 1990s, and while the role-playing game has since had significant commercial success, DiTerlizzi told the museum's curator of exhibitions, Jesse Kowalski, that the illustrations aren't necessarily some of his best work.

"I'm like, dude, this isn't drawn that well," he recalled.

DiTerlizzi feels that way because he was drawing "on pure instinct" at the time, not "running it through a series of refinements" as he does today. His process was similar, he said, when working on "The Spider and the Fly," a picture book based on Mary Howitt's poem about a spider trying to appeal to a fly. When he made this remark, he was sitting on a couch next to the bookshelf, his back turned to the Caldecott Honor plaque commemorating "The Spider and the Fly" as one of the best American picture books for children in 2003.

An award-winning game and book — was following his instincts really such a bad thing?

"I didn't have time to think about [those works] too much," he said. "So, I wrestle with that, to be honest with you. Do I overthink it [now]? Do I overanalyze it?"

Neither he nor co-author Holly Black were overthinking it with "The Spiderwick Chronicles," the five-book, New York Times best-selling series and film. (A film set chair bearing DiTerlizzi's name also loomed behind the couch.) The stories chronicle the adventures of the Grace children after moving into the Spiderwick Estate, a mansion DiTerlizzi summoned from photographs of two houses in Northampton and Greenfield. He and Angela had just moved to Amherst from Brooklyn, N.Y.

"I don't know if I could've done 'Spiderwick' in New York...I needed to reacquaint myself with the outdoors and nature because 'Spiderwick' is such a reflection of that," DiTerlizzi said.

Before New York, however, was Florida.

DiTerlizzi grew up in Jupiter, the oldest of three children in an "artsy fartsy household," he said. During DiTerlizzi's youth, his parents bought a large coffee-table book filled with Norman Rockwell's illustrations. The artist quickly became one of DiTerlizzi's strongest influences, though their work manifests itself differently.

"He's telling the entire story in one snapshot, which is very different from a book illustrator who's almost telling it like animation style or film frames," DiTerlizzi said, eight of his Rockwell books packed on a shelf to his right.

DiTerlizzi has always loved drawing, his affinity for it sustaining throughout his youth while many of his peers' waned.

By his senior year at South Fork High School, DiTerlizzi had enrolled in every art class he could possibly take. Enter Tom Wetzl, one of the school's art teachers. Wetzl knew that DiTerlizzi was hoping to attend art school on his own dime, according to his student. Thus, Wetzl created a one-on-one course in which he required DiTerlizzi to hand in a single art project for the entire semester, a piece to anchor his portfolio and hopefully win him some scholarship money.

The artist decided to illustrate his own version of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Calling on some of his interests and the fashions of the mid-1980s, DiTerlizzi made Alice an anime character. The Mad Hatter was Elton John (an idol for the bespectacled DiTerlizzi). The caterpillar was a Muppet.

DiTerlizzi inked the drawings before coloring them in with markers. Later, he used highlighter markers, too, creating a glowing effect under a black light. Students who didn't normally look at art wanted to page through the book.

"'Hey DiTerlizzi,'" the artist recalled of these encounters, his voice acquiring some huskiness, "'I heard you drew some kind of 'Alice in Wonderland' book. Can I see it?'"

Wetzl also enjoyed it, and DiTerlizzi was later accepted into Florida School of the Arts. The validation from his teacher and his peers stuck with him.

"That was when I was like, I want to do kids' books for the rest of my life," he said.

Now, his high school art project will be displayed under glass at the Rockwell. Wetzl, whom DiTerlizzi calls a "wonderful guy," will be attending the opening.

Though the museum will look back at DiTerlizzi's work, the artist will press on. Some new illustrations currently hang from a bulletin board near the foot of the basement stairs, mapping the story arc of a Christmas picture book. A desk sits adjacent to it and faces a distant horse farm and a mountainous backdrop.

"As an artist, you're chasing the ability to render what you see in your mind to the best of your ability," DiTerlizzi says. "Every year, I think, 'Ah, I've figured out how to do it!' And then the following year I learn something new and go, 'Oh my God!' ...I'm always on this quest to be a better artist and to be a better storyteller through my art, so it's kind of the more you learn, the less you know."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.




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